Mou Piri: multiple layers of meaning

Tuesday June 11, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

Culture is like love, Jon Jonassen tells us in Mou Piri, in the sense that “as long as you hold tight, you’ll be okay”.

Both culture and love are portable, framed not by place but by mindset. Each provides comfort and respite, but also requires from its subscriber the will to “hold tight”.

I think of a long-distance romantic relationship. If two people are committed to each other, the kilometres between them don’t have to diminish their passion, and sometimes they even fuel the fire.

Culture and love (and the power of each) are themes that crop up in Jonassen’s song and the film that carries its namesake – a moving, picturesque 10-minute documentary that showcases the beauty of Rarotonga and the energy of her people.

It’s beautiful and simple at the surface, but full of meaning underneath.

Jonassen explains on-camera that at the most basic level, Mou Piri is about the innocence and excitement of puppy love, depicted in the film by interactions between young people at a community dance. But the song also speaks to evolved love, fed by commitment and loyalty and trust, a love that can bind a person to another person or a people to their culture.

These are the layers filmmaker Karin Williams wanted to peel back.

“I just wanted to explore the meaning of his song,” Williams told me over the phone, after she’d extended to me the privilege of watching her film.

“I wanted to use it as a lens for seeing the Cook Islands music and culture. At the simplest level Mou Piri is about a meeting between a boy and a girl in a dance hall.

“The next deepest level is the possibility of a lifelong relationship between a couple – the beginning of a marriage, maybe – but the deepest level is about the relationship between an individual and a culture. For some people it’s quite a shallow relationship – they use it when they want to – but for others it’s a lifelong commitment.”

In this there is special resonance for Cook Islanders, 85 per cent of whom live abroad. For them, cultural byproducts like music and film renew a prideful passion and beckon the imagination home.

“As Cook Islanders we’re always connected to our culture, even if we’re away for awhile, even if we don’t really understand it. It’s something we’ll always have,” Williams told me.

“There are diasporas of people flung out across the globe, and this song, our music, still has power to pull heartstrings and bring them together, bring them home.”

Williams used Mou Piri as a means to ask and answer one central question: What is it about the Cook Islands culture that’s so attractive, both for Cook Islanders living abroad and for the rest of the world?

Several years ago, she was floored by an enthusiastic global response to a low-quality home video she posted on YouTube of women dancing to Mou Piri at her sister’s Muri wedding. It logged 100,000 hits and ignited in her a passion to answer that question using her art form.

“People from all over the world – from Europe, America, Australia, New Zealand – were watching, requesting lyrics, translations, actions, and I was just really staggered by that,” Williams told me. “I spent years trying to figure out what it was about the song that was reaching people.

“I had comments from people in Australia, Cook Islanders by descent, who had never been, just yearning. They said they felt like plastic, they were yearning, and I wanted to look at what it is about the culture that can reach across time and space and generations to connect people.”

Film Raro provided the perfect opportunity. The result – the product of long hours spent strategising, sleepy 4.30am shoots, and intensive editing – was Mou Piri, a 13-minute documentary that hits the nail on the head.

Without delving into philosophical and heady notions of culture and what it means, it presents the Cook Islands as they are (beautiful) and elements of the culture as they are (powerful).

“It’s a deliberate strategy to promote the Cook Islands and the culture,” Williams said. “These are tiny islands but there’s an amazing culture and I wanted to get it right,” Jon Jonassen says. “The Cook Islands music is often described as being Tahitian people generically call it Tahitian. We want to start re-claiming Cook Islands culture and owning it and describing it accurately.”

And for Williams, Mou Piri is just one chapter in a quest to re-claim and record Cook Islands culture. She wants to create a documentary about local string bands, inspire locals to digitally document the intricacies of their culture, and share the Cook Islands spirit with the rest of the world.

“Being able to bring a film home about Rarotonga and screen it for thousands of locals – it was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “But there’s so much more work to be done.”

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